"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
The night before we leave the Pacific Northwest, Jenne and I sleep over at her parents’ house in Seattle. We live a three-hour drive south, in the smaller city of Portland, but we are flying out of Seattle because it is cheaper.
After dinner, we sit with her father in their living room and make small talk over decaf coffee and cookies. He is a criminal defense attorney who specializes in civil rights law and a professor at a local university. I am an occasional poet and part-time barista, although the latter position I have recently resigned.
Then he asks why we are going.
Jenne and I exchange glances. After a pause, she mumbles something about food and sustainable agriculture. I murmur my assent.
Her father, nodding slightly, looks even more confused than before.
Why were we quitting our jobs and subletting our apartment (effectively putting our lives on hold) to spend our summers sweating on organic farms?
In a more inviting environment, I might have been able to explain part of it. We had been feeling restless in Portland (little about our lives felt tethered to the city), and volunteer farming provided us a cheap way to travel. Of course, we did want to learn more about where our food came from and sustainable agriculture. But there was something else, too, murkier, more difficult to talk about, impelling us away from our Portland home. It had something to do with the festering distaste we felt with northern cities, Portland the latest in a succession of such communities that had housed us since birth.
Jenne and I were both raised in Seattle, we began dating in Brooklyn, N.Y., and we moved together to Portland. We had been born and bred in blue America. Our parents held college degrees, professional jobs and predictable points of view on issues like reproductive rights, marriage equality and preemptively launched wars. We were raised to believe in recycling, temperance and respecting other people’s differences.
Recently, however, we had begun to feel a little disillusioned with the culture. The brew pubs and brunch spots. The high-class cafes and cheapo burrito shops. The happy hours and house pets and crass condo construction. We were tired of the hipsters, with their gaudy mustaches and flannel shirts, unimpressed with the environmentalists, with their blinkered social concern and preening sense of self-righteousness, disgusted by the corporate shills, with their shimmering cocktails and newly minted lofts, and put off by the housewives piling their shopping carts high.
After 25 years surrounded by such people, we were looking for something new. Farming provided us with a point of departure.
Among 20- and 30-somethings of a certain disposition, “woofing” is well-known as a reputable, more economical alternative to straightforward backpacking. The exchange is simple: Woofers provide grunt work; farmers supply room and board; no money changes hands. The organization that facilitates the exchange, WWOOF, or World-Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, was founded in Great Britain in 1971 by a low-income clerical worker. Now the organization spans six continents and approximately 100 countries, including such far-flung locales as Slovenia, Kazakhstan and Sierra Leone.
Our destination is somewhat less exotic, though perhaps no less foreign: the southern regions of the United States. We contact three farmers — one in Alabama, a second in Texas and a third in New Mexico — via email, arranging dates and clarifying the exchange. (A typical scenario is four hours of work per day in exchange for meals and a place to sleep, although arrangements do vary.) We plan to commute between the farms using a combination of Craigslist ride share and Greyhound bus.
Our decision to venture south of the Mason-Dixon line confounds many of our Northwest friends. They seem to conceive of the South as a backward place: plainly racist, politically reactionary, possibly inbred. It doesn’t matter that most of them have never even been.
We head first for Alabama, where our hosts turn out to be refugees from suburban Michigan. Will is pudgy, ponytailed and partial to vintage rock T-shirts; he addresses everyone — man, woman or plant — as “dude.” Laurie, meanwhile, laughs loud, talks fast and seems to make sure everything gets done.
In mostly red Alabama, we have landed on a pinprick of blue. But plenty here is unfamiliar. We are 100 miles from the nearest city, 15 from the closest town. Pigs pace pens yards from where we sleep. The woods behind the barn seem to extend into forever.
Jenne and I mostly work the weeds. But we also learn how to harvest squash blossoms (early in the morning, before they close up in the heat), distinguish among different herbs, and properly use a hoe and shovel. In the mornings, we gather eggs from the hens. In the afternoons, we pour slop for the pigs. At night, we sleep in our own house equipped with a kitchen, bathroom and soft, wide bed.
“If you need a break,” Laurie tells us on our first day, “take one. We’re not into pain.”
In fact, they’re into pleasure. Just days before we arrived, they processed (a euphemism, we learn, for slaughter) one of the farm’s few pigs; they are remorseless in their enthusiasm for the taste of its flesh. We eat some form of the animal with nearly every meal.
Jenne and I are by no means vegetarians, but we eat animal protein sparingly. After a few days stewing in the presence of unabashed carnivorousness, I find myself conflicted. After yet another dinner of meatloaf and sausage with a little grilled squash on the side, I bring up the subject with Laurie and Will.
“How do you feel about eating animals?” I ask.
“If God hadn’t wanted us to eat critters,” Will says with a guffaw, “he wouldn’t have made them out of meat!”
Laurie smiles, waiting for him to quiet.
“These pigs aren’t pets,” she says. “We all have our role to play.”
It seemed like a reasonable attitude — provided you took care of the animals yourself. Treat the critters well until a certain point, after which they become food.
As our two-week stay comes to a close, Jenne and I joke that if things go to hell back in Portland, there are worse places we could land.
At the next farm, located about an hour south of Austin, we find an altogether different situation. The incongruity begins with a couple of fellow Woofers who pick us up at the Greyhound bus station. Mark and Lindsay hardly look like volunteer farmers: He has bright blond hair sculpted in the military style and a stiff collared shirt tucked into blue jeans, while his wife wears a shy smile and a skirt covering her knees. It is Sunday, I remember absently; they are coming back from church.
It turns out they are taking a year off from their white-collar jobs in Austin to volunteer on organic farms and camp in national parks. They are only a few years older than we are, but their parents — in Dallas and Virginia, respectively — have been expecting grandchildren for some time. The trip is their last chance to wander unencumbered.
After the conversation turns to politics, Mark expresses regret about John McCain’s recent electoral defeat, while Lindsay professes to liking Ron Paul. Neither has even heard of our favored choice, Dennis Kucinich.
We swerve away from political talk. After we discover Mark has suffered a recent death in his family, as I have in mine, we talk grief, loss and the protracted process of healing. After Lindsay reports she went to an inner-city public high school, as I did, we talk race, class and the supreme relativity of privilege. After we learn Mark loves photography, as does Jenne, we talk cameras, composition and the criticality of self-expression.
An hour later, we arrive at a long narrow driveway that brings us up to the main house. The farmer, a woman named Kathleen, is smoking a cigarette on the porch. She smiles wearily as we approach, stubbing the butt out, beckoning us in.
Inside, a young boy watches television in a corner of the room. When Jenne goes over to say hello, he won’t look away from the cartoons.
The next morning, we begin work in the vegetable garden, an acre or so plot that comprises the bulk of the farm. Where Laurie and Will’s farm had been nearly weed-free, here gaudy flowers bloom, crowding out the vegetable plants, and thick grass carpets the walkways. I go to work prying up the carpet while Jenne tugs out flowers on her hands and knees.
By noon, the heat is swarming, intense, so we break for lunch. With Kathleen nowhere to be found, we rummage through cupboards for cans of tuna fish, as we had been instructed to do this morning. Discovering a jar of pickles, Jenne chops a wedge up and mixes it in.
A moment later, Kathleen appears. She looks noticeably older in the daylight, her face gaunt, her shoulders bony and brittle.
She points to the jar on the counter.
“Did someone eat one of my pickles?” she asks.
We shrug our shoulders sheepishly.
She fixes us with a glare.
The next morning, we wake at the agreed upon time. The house is dark, quiet. I tiptoe to the kitchen to start the coffeemaker, as I’d seen Lindsay do the morning before.
A moment later, Kathleen appears wearing nothing but a baggy T-shirt.
“I don’t provide coffee for Woofers,” she snarls, swooping past me to disable the machine.
It doesn’t take much to recognize the woman is having a hard time. She is moody, self-absorbed and difficult to communicate with. (“You ask too many questions,” she admonishes after Jenne attempts to clarify an instruction.) She feeds us inorganically and sometimes not enough. (Dinner the first two nights consists of corn dogs and potato chips.) Our sleeping area, which doubles as the packing room for her CSA (Community Supported Agriculture: a subscription program by which farmers provide produce to urban consumers), is open to the public, not to mention cramped and hot.
The situation is obviously less than ideal. And there are times, during our first week there, when we consider packing it in. In the end, though, we decide to stick it out for the full two weeks, in part because the third farm, in New Mexico, won’t yet be expecting us, and in part because we don’t want to bail on our commitment.
If you could look past the erratic behavior, then, and our own occasional pangs of hunger, you began to make out the contours of a farm brimming with wonder. The creek that ran behind the house was crisp and inviting after a long morning’s work. Chickens wandered the farm freely, immune to the yapping dogs. Each morning the scratch of cicadas filled the air, a sound I grew to recognize as a kind of music.
This was new for me, this noticing nature. I had always been someone who preferred cities, those thrumming, human ecosystems, to more undeveloped spaces. On the farm, though, life went on before your eyes. Creatures competed for territory. Plants unfurled their leaves. Vegetables matured in dirt. Jenne and I played our role, too, picking parasites off plants and hacking away at the thick growth. We swung at the vines as though life depended on it. Of course, it did.
Imagine. As you stoop to clear a vine, a cocklebur pierces your finger. Wincing, you tease it out.
Funny, it almost sounds like pain.
As the week wears on, our apprehension of Kathleen gives way to feelings of sympathy. Her CSA has been in decline ever since the advent of the recession; attempts to make up the difference at farmers’ markets have yet to bear much fruit. She is a single mother trying to manage an organic farm alone. She teeters on several kinds of brinks.
We do what we can to lessen her burden. We weed her rows, sound out her complaints. One night, we even baby-sit her kid.
After two weeks, it is time for us to leave. She seems sad to see us go.
Our third farmer, Joe, is arguably in worse shape than Kathleen. The farm, situated somewhere south of Santa Fe on a mostly deserted hamlet (population 35) squeezed between two Indian reservations, is a bedraggled, weed-ridden affair. Joe works the land for another man, a wannabe cowboy in blue jeans and oversize belt buckle, in exchange for a share of the profits. We meet the owner only once: When he smiles, he shows the impeccable white teeth of a winner. Joe’s smile, on the other hand, is scarred with yellow, and there is a sense about him that he hasn’t won anything for a very long time.
It has been an especially difficult year by all accounts. A late frost put him behind on planting, which delayed the harvest, which means by the time we arrive, all he has to take to market are a couple of buckets stuffed with yellow squash and a cabin full of curing garlic. His income, while we work there, appears to be nonexistent.
We eat even worse with Joe than we did in Texas. Hot dogs and TV dinners, packaged ham and cups of noodles, canned vegetables and canned meat: The man’s diet runs the gamut of cheap, mass-produced quasi-edibles. One night, the roast beef rolled into my tortilla tastes suspiciously like cat food.
As with the other farms, our job is the weeds, in this case a notoriously insidious vine called bindweed. The plant has a long taproot that drills deep into the soil, making it nearly impossible to pull out cleanly. Chopping the vine out doesn’t work because it reroots with ease. If you ignore it for too long, the plant sprouts seedpods that contain hundreds of future plants. And it grows fast.
Joe assigns us to a plot infested with the stuff and basically leaves us alone. We go at it with hoes at first, raking the plants into wheelbarrows and carting them away. Then we sprawl out on all fours and yank the roots out by hand.
Taproots curl on the ground like the carcasses of slaughtered snakes. Dirt begins to show through where before there had only been vine. As our burn pile grows tall, we learn to look on it with pride.
For two weeks we work that plot, stopping only when the sun grows too hot. Lunch is a piece of liverwurst sausage slapped between halves of a supermarket bagel. In the afternoons, we hike to the river, where Joe or someone has strung up a hammock, and dangle our feet in the water, or read old novels, or make notes in our journals. And sometimes we fight, the fatigue, dry heat and high altitude taking a toll.
Mostly, though, all is peaceful in New Mexico. There is no Internet or television, our only contact with the outside world a transistor radio Joe keeps tuned to NPR.
“Damned conservative media,” Joe, a professed anarchist, likes to growl, but he keeps it on.
Our sleeping quarters consist of a defunct camper parked a few hundred yards from the main house; we sleep on a pull-out bed beneath an unzipped sleeping bag, our only light the plastic camping lantern Joe provided the day we arrived.
One night, an overripe bladder pushes me outside where the sun still glows. It shines a distant, eerie red, seeming to illuminate the earth’s edge. I stand there for a while, just staring. Whole worlds exist between me and that light.
Two weeks later, we are back in Portland. Back sleeping in the old apartment, sipping Stumptown in cafes, looking for work on Craigslist. It doesn’t take long to slip back into your native culture.
Every so often, though, I find myself thinking back to the farms. The nighttime sun in New Mexico. The cicada screech in Texas. The fresh pork in Alabama. And I remember that Jenne and I experienced something remarkable on our trip last summer.
Farming, even our amateur brush with it, was not easy or glamorous work. It was a relentless, economically perilous vocation that could make you crazy like Kathleen or leave you broke like Joe. Even in the era of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, small-scale organic farming remains a tenuous pursuit, at best.
But our trip was about more than just farming. It was about pushing ourselves outside of our comfort zones, shedding some of our prejudices about what makes a life worth living, and opening to another way.
In some small way, it was about growing up.
Now, I want to go back. To pour slop for the pigs and harvest squash blossoms in the dawn, before they close up in the heat, and tear bindweed out with my fists. To weed and water and water and weed.
I want to grow.
Alex Gallo-Brown's essays have appeared in Bookslut, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, and The Collagist, among other publications. He is currently working on a manuscript of poems about grief.More Alex Gallo-Brown.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)